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Language in the Spotlight

Yoruba: An Important Language of West Africa


Yoruba is spoken by about 30 million people in southwestern Nigeria, Benin, and northern Togo. Yoruba joins Hausa and Igbo as the most widely spoken languages in Nigeria. Although this member of the Benue Congo group of languages has about 20 distinct dialects, Standard Yoruba is recognized by speakers of all dialects and is used in education, literature, and the media.

The Roman alphabet has been used to write the Yoruba language for about 150 years. A few extra diacritics are used to indicate additional sounds; for example, acute and grave accents indicate high and low tones, which are not present in Western languages.

Until the early 19th century, Yoruba remained an unwritten language, little known outside of West Africa. In 1819, Bowdich published the first Yoruba word list, which introduced the language to linguists. But a substantial Yoruba vocabulary did not appear until 1828 when Hannah Kilham published a collection of vocabularies from 30 African languages, most of which was gathered by two missionaries in Sierra Leone.

By around 1843-1849, Yoruba became one of the first West African languages to have a written grammar and a dictionary. They were compiled by Samuel Crowther, a former slave who was eventually freed by the British and ordained to serve as a missionary in Yorubaland. By 1859, a Yoruba newspaper appeared, and by 1875, the Yoruba orthography was standardized by the Church Missionary Society in Lagos, Nigeria.

A complete translation of the Bible was published in 1900, initiated and partly carried out by Crowther. A translation of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress soon followed, and became a major influence on African language writers. The first written Yoruba poetry was undertaken in 1905 by the prolific and popular writer Sobowale Sowande. By 1920, literacy in Yoruba was rapidly spreading and since then has facilitated a steady flow of original Yoruba writing in both prose and verse.

The movement to study Yoruba in the United States began in the 1960s, predominantly as part of U.S. foreign policy initiatives to spread awareness of previously untaught or rarely taught languages. Through the 1970s, Yoruba was generally taught on a tutorial basis to graduate students in the social sciences who were interested in research or Peace Corps work in Yorubaland.

By the 1980s, many U.S. universities started offering Yoruba as a regular course, and about 20 currently have a Yoruba program. Students enroll in Yoruba for linguistic work, oral and written literary work, or fieldwork applications. Furthermore, African-Americans often study Yoruba out of interest in their own heritage, since many of the slaves brought to North America during the 18th and 19th centuries came from Yoruba-speaking areas.

Yoruba language instruction has come a long way since the first word list in 1819. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Yoruba program uses Content-Based Instruction methodologies to help students reach their particular language goals. A Yoruba font enables communication via e-mail and the World Wide Web, with all the tone marks intact. And an interactive, multimedia CD-ROM, the first for any African language, brings real native speakers to the desktops of Yoruba students around the world.

If you would like to find out where to learn more about Yoruba, please visit the African Languages Teachers Association page in this website to contact Association officers.

Contributed by the: African Languages Teachers Association